Students and Teachers Learning from Nature: Studying Biologically Inspired Design in High School Engineering Education

In this project, high school engineering teachers will spend five weeks in a research lab devoted to biologically-inspired design, as they partner with cutting-edge engineers and scientists to study animal features and behavior and their applications to engineering designs. After this lab experience, the high school teachers will receive three six- to ten-week curricular units, tailored for tenth- through twelfth-grade students, which teach biologically-inspired design in the context of problems that are relevant to youth.

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Scientists and engineers often learn from nature to develop new products that benefit society, a process called biologically-inspired design. Aerospace engineers, for example, have studied the intricate folding patterns in ladybugs' wings to gain ideas for designing more compact satellites. In this project, high school engineering teachers will spend five weeks in a research lab devoted to biologically-inspired design, as they partner with cutting-edge engineers and scientists to study animal features and behavior and their applications to engineering designs. After this lab experience, the high school teachers will receive three six- to ten-week curricular units, tailored for tenth- through twelfth-grade students, which teach biologically-inspired design in the context of problems that are relevant to youth. The teachers will also participate in ongoing professional development sessions that demonstrate strategies for teaching these units. The research team will study whether and how the lab and professional development experiences influence the teachers' understandings of engineering and perspectives toward nature, among other outcomes. Additionally, the research team will study whether the curricular units are associated with positive learning outcomes for students. The curricula and professional development modules will be shared publicly through online resources and teacher workshops, and research findings will be widely disseminated through journals. Because previous research has suggested that biologically-inspired design is a promising approach for attracting and retaining women in engineering careers, this project is likely to result in products that foster high school girls' interest in engineering during a critical period when they are imagining their future career trajectories. Moreover, these products are likely to fuel national innovation by teaching students how to look to nature to find answers to pressing problems, and by generating knowledge about motivational educational approaches that encourage a wider range of high school students to pursue engineering careers.

This project addresses the persistent underrepresentation of girls in engineering careers by developing and testing three sets of curricula that are expected to lead to positive outcomes among high school females. These curricula incorporate biologically-inspired engineering, humanistic engineering, a focus on sustainability and ideation, and authentic design contexts. Ten high school teachers will participate in extensive professional development experiences that prepare them to effectively teach the curricula. These experiences include a five-week lab experience with scientists who are applying biologically-inspired design; a one-week workshop demonstrating strategies for teaching the units; weekly implementation meetings; and web-based professional development modules. To study the effect of the professional development on teachers, researchers will collect curriculum design logs, teacher enactment surveys, and engineering teaching self-efficacy surveys; they will also conduct classroom observations and interviews. Qualitative analyses of these sources will indicate whether and how the professional development affected teachers' understanding of the engineering design process, engineering teaching self-efficacy, and perspective toward the natural and designed world. To study the effect of the curricula on over 1,100 high school students, researchers will use a pre-post design with validated measures to determine whether the curricula are associated with greater understanding and use of the engineering design process; ability to generate well-formulated engineering design problems; engineering self-efficacy; attitudes toward the natural and designed world; sustainability awareness; and intent to persist in engineering. Subsequently, a quasi-experimental design with a matched comparison group will enable the researchers to determine whether the treatment group outperformed the comparison group on pre-post measures. Qualitative analysis of focus groups and interviews with a sub-set of high school girls will indicate whether and how the curricula supported their sense of belonging in engineering. This project is designed to advance knowledge and practice in engineering education for high school students, especially among girls, ultimately resulting in broadening participation in engineering pathways.

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